“Hey! Hey!” someone shouted, making Derrick Miller lurch awake.
He opened his eyes and squinted against the bright morning light. He dazedly looked around him, wondering why he had fallen asleep in his car and not his bed. He looked down at himself. And why was he still wearing his tuxedo?
The pounding in his head wasn’t helping him focus. It was like a jackhammer was trying to beat a hole through his skull. His mouth was dry, too. His neck, back, and shoulders ached after sitting up in the driver’s seat for he had no idea how long.
“Look, man, you can’t be sleepin’ here! This ain’t no damn hotel!” a muffled voice shouted at him.
Derrick turned slightly in his seat to find a security guard standing at the driver’s-side door, rapping his knuckles on the glass. The guard—a squat, fat, elderly man in a too-tight uniform—was scowling at him and sending spittle flying at the window.
As Derrick stared back at him, he finally realized where he was. He had fallen asleep in his Nissan in the same parking garage he had parked in last night. After he had left the education gala, after his girlfriend, Morgan, had walked out on him—probably for good—he had decided to lick his wounds and stay huddled up in his car. Derrick had been too drunk to drive home. He hadn’t wanted to make his bad evening worse with a car accident or getting pulled over by Metro Police for a DUI.
He had already dodged being sent to jail last night. There was no need to take the chance again.
“I’m tellin’ you, man. If you don’t move this car, I’m callin’ the cops!” the guard shouted. “I’m not playin’!”
Derrick held up his hands and nodded groggily. “I’m leavin’. I’m . . . I’m leavin’. Just . . . just give me a second to get . . . get myself together. Okay?”
He tiredly scrubbed his hands over his face and turned on the engine. He threw the car into reverse and pressed the accelerator, making the car heave back and the guard jump out of the way to keep from getting hit or his toes run over.
“Damn! Watch it! You tryin’ to kill somebody?” the guard yelled.
Derrick didn’t answer him. Instead, he continued to back out of the parking space, though he did so more carefully this time. He looked up and followed the EXIT signs, pointing his car in the same direction as the yellow arrows overhead until he finally reached the gate that would take him out of the garage onto a Northwest D.C. street that was already teeming with morning traffic.
As Derrick made the slow drive back to his apartment building, the events of last night came rushing back to him in lurid detail. The more he remembered, the more he cringed.
In one night, he had not only managed to lose the opportunity to get badly needed funding for the Branch Avenue Boys’ Youth Institute where he was executive director, but he’d also lost his girl . . . his love, Morgan. And he had done it all because of misguided jealousy and fury—all because he had found out his ex, Melissa, was now dating his former best friend, Jamal.
Now sober, Derrick realized how insane he must have looked last night to everyone in that ballroom as he yelled and cursed. He could still hear the echoes of the screams from the crowd around them as he punched Jamal in the face in a fit of rage near the hotel’s elevators.
Did he regret what he’d done? He certainly regretted the aftermath. He did love Morgan and hadn’t wanted her to think otherwise. He had wanted to make a good impression on John and Eliza Mayhew—the wealthy couple whom Morgan had arranged for him to meet at the gala in the hope that they would donate money to the Institute. Derrick hadn’t wanted to squander either opportunity. But how was he expected not to lash out, to not feel anything about Jamal’s betrayal? He was only human; any redblooded man in a similar situation probably would have done the same damn thing. Derrick just wished he hadn’t done it so publicly. He wished Morgan hadn’t been there. He shouldn’t have been so reckless or stupid.
When he arrived at his apartment building twenty minutes later, he pulled into a vacant space, slowly opened his car door, and staggered onto the sidewalk. His head was still pounding. He still felt like he needed sunglasses to keep out the morning sun. A couple of minutes later, he shoved open his front door, revealing an eerily quiet apartment.
He didn’t expect Morgan to be here, even though she had moved in with him briefly. They were both supposed to move into their new apartment in a few weeks in Brookland, near Gallaudet University. It would’ve been the first place they had gotten together.
Morgan’s lease at her apartment had ended earlier than his. She had been staying here until their big move.
Until I fucked that up, he thought morosely as he closed the apartment door behind him.
Derrick had managed to lose two women and a cat in less than six months. He was certain of it now: He was horrible at relationships.
He walked down the hall to his bedroom, removing his tie from around his neck and his jacket along the way. After he’d stripped off all of his clothes, he looked at himself in the bathroom mirror, pulling back his dreads and securing them with a rubber. Derrick hadn’t been the one hit last night but his eyes were puffy, probably from the lack of a good night’s sleep. Fatigue was all over his mahogany-hued face. He flexed his sore hand, climbed into the shower stall, and adjusted the shower head from the last time Morgan had used it, making it accommodate his tall height. He felt the hot blast of the water, hoping to wash away the frustration and shame he felt. Derrick emerged from the bathroom thirty minutes later, having brushed his teeth and taken some aspirin. When he did, he heard a thumping sound in his bedroom. He walked down the hall and found Morgan hunched over one of the drawers, shoving some of her clothes into a duffel bag. She was no longer wearing her gown from last night but a T-shirt and shorts. Her curly hair was in a loose bun atop her head.
He leaned against the door frame as he watched her. It was obvious she was unaware he was standing there because she went about her task without even giving him a glance.
He had been through this before when Melissa had packed her things and moved out after she found out he had been cheating with Morgan for months. But watching Morgan go through the same ritual, hurt even more. This was supposed to be the start of something new and fresh.
This was supposed to be the relationship he had finally gotten right. There was no tug-of-war with Morgan like what he’d experienced with Melissa even in their best of times because, though they’d loved each other, they were too different at heart. With Morgan, everything fell into place—and he had ruined it.
His phone rang, snapping her attention, making her turn around to look at his cell that sat on one of the night tables. When she did, her eyes landed on Derrick and she held up her free hand.
“I don’t wanna talk,” she said as the phone rang again. She returned her attention to her packing. “I just wanna get some of my shit and get the hell out of here. I’ll come back for the rest later. Okay?”
“I didn’t hear you come in.”
“You weren’t supposed to,” she muttered.
“Where are you staying?”
She didn’t answer him. Instead, she continued to pack.
“Morgan, don’t do this, baby! Look, I know what I did last night was fucked up,” he began, tightening the towel around his waist and walking toward her. “But I want you to know . . . I need you to understand that it wasn’t because I want to get back with Melissa. I know that’s over between us. I just—”
“The only reason why it’s over between you and Melissa is because she left you, Derrick,” Morgan said icily. “I was the consolation prize—the backup. I always was. I know that now. And the only reason you’re upset I’m leaving is you’ll be alone. But you’ll find another girl. Men like you always do. Another sucker will come along. Don’t worry!”
“You aren’t a sucker and you weren’t the consolation prize, damn it! I really do lov—”
“I don’t want to hear it anymore. I’m tired of your bullshit and your lying! You’re wasting your breath!” She glanced at his phone again. “You should probably answer that. It keeps ringing.”
The ringtone continued to fill the bedroom. He grimly pursed his lips and stepped around her to answer his cell.
“Yeah?” he said after pressing the green button.
“Mr. Miller,” Gary, one of the security guards at the Institute answered, “sir, I’m glad I caught you. We’ve got a situation up here.”
Derrick frowned. “What’s wrong? Did something happen? Is it one of the boys?”
At those words, Morgan halted. She turned and looked at Derrick.
In addition to being his girlfriend, Morgan was also an instructor at the Boys’ Institute. She taught woodworking and was one of the favorite teachers of most of the boys enrolled in the rehabilitation program. She had embraced the underprivileged teens, ignoring their troubled pasts and seeing them for who they were at their core. It was one of the things Derrick loved most about her.
“Something happened?” she whispered, narrowing her green eyes.
He shrugged helplessly as he listened to Gary on the other end.
“Yeah, it’s one of the boys. He’s disappeared,” Gary finally explained.
“Cole Humphries, sir. We checked the dormitories, all the classrooms, the basketball court . . . everywhere, and we can’t find him. One of the kids said he thinks he saw Cole sneak out last night, but it’s not on any of our security footage. We don’t know where he went.”
Cole was one of his more troubled students. He had been working for one of the biggest drug kingpins in D.C., Dolla Dolla, before one of his crimes had landed him at the Institute. He’d even been holding and transporting drugs and money for Dolla Dolla at the school, until Derrick and Morgan had confronted him together and put a stop to it. Cole had promised them that he would no longer work for Dolla Dolla, that he would clean up his ways. Now Derrick wondered if he had been telling them the truth.
“Okay,” he murmured. “I’ll be in soon. I’ll start making phone calls to see if I can track him down.” “Okay, sir,” Gary said before hanging up.
“What’s wrong?” Morgan asked as Derrick lowered his cell phone back to his night table.
“What? Did he run away?”
“Looks like it,” he said, yanking his towel from around his waist and tossing it to the floor. He strode to his dresser and began to gather underwear and socks.
She dazedly shook her head. “But why would he . . . I don’t understand.”
“I don’t either, but I have to find him before the cops do.” He stepped into his boxer briefs. “He’s going to be in violation of his sentence for leaving the Institute like this. He could get sent to jail.”
Though the boy had been a thorn in Derrick’s side pretty much since he’d arrived at the Institute, he didn’t want to see Cole go to prison. Putting a young man in a cell with older, hardened criminals who had committed much worse crimes than him would only make Cole worse, not better. And honestly, Derrick saw a little of his young self in Cole—the false bravado, the swagger. Those were the same traits that had landed Derrick at the Institute twenty years ago, before he’d learned the error of his ways.
“I’ll help you,” Morgan said, making him pause and stare at her in surprise.
“I said I’ll help you find Cole! I’ll talk to some of his friends at the Institute. Maybe they’ll tell me why he would leave . . . where he went. He could be at his mom’s house, but he might not. What if he went back to Dolla? What if something happened and he just had to go, Derrick?”
Derrick was considering that, too. Maybe Cole hadn’t run away from school, but was fleeing from something else . . . or someone else.
“The boys trust me. They might tell me stuff that they won’t tell the rest of you,” she insisted.
“You don’t have to do this.”
After all that he had put her through, she would still be willing to help him?
“I know. But I care about Cole and what happens to him.”
He stared at her for several seconds before slowly nodding. “Okay. Thank you.”
“Let’s be clear though. This ain’t for you. We’re done.” She pointed at herself then him then back again. “This is for Cole.” She zipped her duffel bag closed and threw the strap over her shoulder. “I’ll wait for you in the living room while you get dressed,” she said.
He watched silently as she walked out of the room.